Jorge Cabrera, a drug smuggler who has emerged as one of the most notorious supporters of President Clinton's re-election campaign, was asked for a campaign contribution in the unlikely locale of a hotel in Havana by a prominent Democratic fund-raiser, congressional investigators have learned.
The investigators said the fund-raiser, whom they identified as Vivian Mannerud, a Cuban-American businesswoman from Miami, told Cabrera at a meeting at the Copacabana Hotel in Havana that in exchange for a contribution he would be invited to a fund-raising dinner in honor of Vice President Al Gore in an exclusive enclave near Miami.Mannerud owns Airline Brokers Co., an airline charter service that operates among Havana, the Bahamas and Mexico.
On his return to the United States several days after that meeting, in November 1995, Cabrera wrote a check for $20,000 to the Democratic National Committee from an account that included the proceeds from smuggling cocaine from Colombia to the United States, said the investigators, insisting on anonymity.
Within two weeks of the contribution, Cabrera met Gore at the dinner in Miami. Ten days later, Cabrera attended a Christmas reception at the White House hosted by Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the events, Gore and the first lady posed for photographs with Cabrera, who has two felony convictions dating from the 1980s and is now in a prison here on a drug-smuggling conviction.
In an interview, Mannerud, who has spoken with the investigators, said she could not recall soliciting a contribution from Cabrera in Cuba, although she vaguely recalled meeting him there. It is unclear why Ca-bre-ra was approached in Cuba and how much Mannerud or other Democratic fund-raisers might have known about his criminal background.
The White House and the Democratic National Committee said the party returned the $20,000 from Cabrera in October after deciding it was an improper donation. A spokeswoman for the committee, Amy Weiss Tobe, made that point again recently, adding, "Once we found out about Cabrera's past, we immediately returned the money, and we feel we have put this behind us."
Cabrera's contribution and smuggling conviction, which became public knowledge three weeks before Election Day in November, were one of the first examples of the questionable fund-raising practices that have brought criticism to the Democratic Party. By now, the case has come to symbolize the Democratic National Committee's frenetic drive for campaign cash.
In early January 1996, three weeks after having attended the Christmas reception at the White House, Cabrera was arrested and charged with importing 6,000 pounds of cocaine into the United States on boats through the Florida Keys. Late last year, he pleaded guilty to those charges and was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison and fined $1.5 million.
When he was arrested, agents found a picture of Cabrera with Castro. Cabrera tried to obtain a lighter sentence by contending that the Cuban government was involved in his drug trafficking.
The new details about the location for the solicitation of Cabrera's contribution and the source of the money have come to light in congressional investigators' interviews here with Cabrera. The investigators, who are looking into possible abuses of campaign fund-raising, are trying to determine whether Cabrera "laundered" drug money when making his $20,000 "soft money" contribution to the campaign.
Investigators had originally acted on a tip that an associate of Cabrera had delivered $20,000, in $100 bills, to Mannerud's office. But in recent weeks investigators learned that that did not occur. Instead, bank records show that $11,900 in cash, from drug proceeds, was deposited into Ca-bre-ra's checking account on Nov. 21, 1995, several officials familiar with the investigation said.
The cash was specifically deposited to help cover the $20,000 campaign check, which Cabrera wrote that same day, the officials said.
At that time, Cabrera, whose family fishing business is one of the largest suppliers of lobsters and stone crabs to restaurants in southern Florida, was a frequent visitor to Cuba.
Several congressional investigators said Cabrera described the solicitation and contribution in interviews with investigators at the North Dade Detention Center in March.
Much of his account was backed up by his lawyer, Stephen J. Bronis, and several former associates of Cabrera. But Bronis declined to say whether his client had used drug money as a campaign contribution.